3 Half-Life 2
You know how we said this list is about the games we love, not just the best ones? Well, sometimes sheer quality can burn its way into men's hearts. Half-Life 2 set the bar so high for a character- and plot-driven action game that it's a wonder anyone else still tries.
Alyx is a heroic achievement: a character we genuinely adore, attributed with a convincing personality. HL2 does everything almost perfectly: set-pieces, pacing, weapons (the gravity gun!), dialogue, world design... it's even got a car that handles beautifully. Speaking of which, we can't consider HL2 without its two (so far) episodes, so as a package this is a game that's hard to beat.
Jim says "There are times when the jaded facade we present to the world breaks down and the child is left exposed, giggling, scared, wide-eyed in wonder. Half-Life 2 left me like that, almost to the point of embarrassment."
Craig says "All hail the Gravity Gun, best of all in-game weapons. But it's not just that: Half-Life 2's art, writing and action all combine to make something unique: a shooter where I genuinely care about the people around me. And I hate everybody."
2 Deus Ex
At face value, this is an eight-year-old shooter with a slightly clichéd plot. But beneath that is a giant of a game, the product of an incredibly clear vision and immense skill. Everyone remembers Ion Storm for Daikatana and John Romero's silky, silky hair. Why, when we have this?
As JC Denton, you are a cybernetically enhanced secret agent. The world is packed with conspiracies, terrorists and handily placed drinks dispensers. What is special about Deus Ex is how it draws you into its web, makes you care about characters, makes you desperate to unlock that next ability to wreak more cunning or spectacular havoc on your enemies.
The freedom of approach, mirroring one of its main influences, System Shock 2, makes you feel rewarded for specialising instead of feeling like you've missed out on alternate choices.
Deus Ex is atmospheric, true to its vision, and ultimately a hugely satisfying adventure once you've reached the dramatic finale and its terrible choice.
Tony says "I knew I'd found my dream game the tenth time I tackled the sequence where the story seemed to demand that the bad guys kill my brother, Paul. I blocked his door with furniture, placed explosives, fought like a demon instead of legging it down the fire escape, and I beat them. I'd saved my brother. I'd changed the goddamn story!"
Tom says "The ingenious approaches Deus Ex encourages come from being pitched against impossible odds with a wide toolset. But the fun comes from when these plans go wrong: when you trip your own gas grenade by mistake, lose a leg to the Karkian you released, or inadvertently catch your brother with a GEP gun and have to deal with his understandable wrath."
1 Team Fortress 2
Valve first announced Team Fortress 2 back in 1999. It was to be a real-world-type team shooter, not entirely unlike Battlefield 2. Thank God they saw reason.
The eventual culmination of that long development process shocked the world with its cartoon graphics and emphasis on tactics over accuracy. The shocked world quickly realised the joy of TF2 on its release last September: hugely differentiated classes mean totally different roles and abilities - just pick the one you prefer or the one that your team needs to break a particular deadlock.
It means everyone has a favourite class, and no one needs to have their lack of a specific skill - twitch aiming, for most of us - exposed and punished. Can't shoot for shit?
Be a Medic, and top-score by healing everyone at just the right time. Bunker mentality? Be an Engineer and keep those Sentries mowing down attackers. Evil streak? Be a Spy.